Around lunchtime Ben went stir-crazy with boredom. The heat of the early summer’s day was stifling and insects were humming busily around the air. There was absolutely nothing to do and he just knew that time was conspiring with his boredom behind his back. He knew that his clock was ticking slower every time and that it was standing still in between intervals.
Feeling that there was no way that he could stay home without getting nuts, Ben snatched his wallet, limped to the next bus stop and was off to the center of the town.
There life was buzzing in comparison to the absolute silence of the farm. Compared to the big City he had been living in the last fifteen years it was an utter graveyard where not even zombies bothered to roam. But right now it was at least something. With a sigh of relief Ben dived in the light bustle of people that were wandering the streets. Snatching fractions and snippets of conversations here and there and the noise of cars driving by, Ben felt himself slowly calm down a little. The noises of the city were a bit like music once you had gotten truly used to them and now he felt like a child that had had to suffer through an exceptionally long period of sickness and rainy days. Only to be finally let out on the first sunny day in ages.
Gleefully he breathed in the warm air filled with the million scents of people. Exhaust gases from cars, sweat, food, farts and the stench of piss from some corner where a beggar was huddling against the wall. The ineffable aroma of people living. Might not every bit of this kaleidoscope of scents be pleasant to his nose, Ben was relieved to find himself among people again. He pulled out his wallet and – feeling generous – dumped a small bill into the cup of the homeless person. Walking on he found himself whistling cheerily to himself. Hands shoved in his pockets, his toe protected by a pair of sturdy shoes, cash in his wallet, the sun shining on his face and people around him. What could possibly go wrong?
He stopped at a bookshop and stacked up the old-fashioned way: books and magazines, most of them covering farm life and horses, as well as a few magazines targeting men. He knew that it was probably slightly paranoid of him to publicly buy a Playboy magazine as well as a few related ones. But Ben had developed the habit so thoroughly over the years that he automatically snatched them without thinking. In the office he would have dumped them into his upper right drawer to casually peek out whenever he opened it. A few of his colleagues had borrowed them or asked to keep them when he was done reading and he had obliged. Glad to be rid of the waste paper and with his reputation strengthened every time the illustrated cover page flashed. He was sure that none of his colleagues ever suspected him of being gay. Not with that endless stack of magazines, the flirts and flings with females and the occasional photo that he showed around. Things were different in the small town of course. But it sure could not help to be prepared.
Feeling his belly rumble and, following a hunch he walked down the road to a burger restaurant. Burgers were not really his favorite food in the world. But the place looked comfortable and sunny, the waiters seemed relaxed and the menu promised other things besides burgers as well. Feeling thoroughly cheery and happy with himself he sank into a small booth that would grant him some privacy. There he unpacked the stack of magazines from a plastic bag and started his usual routine of flipping through the pages. When he had found the kinkiest displays he went to viciously folding the magazine pages back to back, breaking the cover over and over. After that he mechanically dog-eared all pages that had interesting looking articles and proceeded to bend the magazine in a few more ways. Within five minutes the magazine looked as if it had been thoroughly read cover to cover several times. With enough time to marvel at the more educational photos.
Just as he was about to place the magazine down, there was a tingling sensation in his neck. He felt watched. Looking up he stared straight into the face of a female employee who apparently had stopped filling the coffee grinder mid-motion. When she noticed him looking she hastily returned to her work seemingly trying to cover up any mishaps.
Ben hesitated for a moment. Did that woman observe what he had been doing to the magazine? Probably. Was he going to do something about it? He pondered the question for a while as he placed the magazine net to him on the table. Then decided against it. As long as no one talked about something there was no problem. If he made a fuss about it she would only feel encouraged to either exploit the weakness or worsen the problem in any other way. No, silence was the best he could do.
With a sigh Ben dumped another men’s magazine on top of the rather abused Playboy before he made a grab for the menu and proceeded to study it.
“What can I bring you?”
The tender voice drew him out of his stupor and made him lift his eyes. For the past minutes he had tried to read the menu and decide what he wanted to eat. But no matter how much he tried to focus on them, they blurred out within the second. Rather than dealing with the food options in front of him, his thoughts had raced away and started to mull over the problem of a possible exploit the woman of the bar might do. How he would react if she did come up with the courage to ask him about the magazine. And like a dog chasing his too short tail, he had come up with nothing.
“Uhm.” Feeling his composure slip as he noticed the woman from the bar in front of him, he swallowed. A vast blank hole started to appear in front of his eyes and swallowed his brain. If that woman told everyone what she saw him do to the magazine, he would be done for. If it came out that he preferred men, his career would be over. He just knew it. Floundering, Ben waved his hand airily. “Uhm, I am not sure. I can’t really decide.” He flipped the pages of the menu and shook his head. “I have no idea what I should take. Just that I would prefer it if it was not a burger.”
She coked her head to one side and blinked in surprise. “Why, are you vegetarian?”
“No. It’s just that I don’t like food that is drenched in fat. Burgers tend to be that, right?” Her name was Melanie, he noticed when his gaze slipped over her name tag.
Rising her perfect eyebrows in a mocking way, she sat down next to him. Unsure of what to think, Ben stayed where he was. But instead of leaning over and kissing him or whispering in his ear like he was used to, she simply grabbed one end of the menu and started flipping through the pages.
“Look at this.” Holding the menu out for him to see she tapped on one of the pages.
‘New Age Burger – what you should know about us and why our burgers are the best’ it spelled on the page. There were a lot of photos showing what seemed to be the owner of the restaurant and several members of the staff.
“Our burgers are different. They are grilled, not fried. With a special set of ingredients to make them fluffy and juicy but not fat.” Seeing that her customer did not seem to be impressed, she snapped the menu shut and smiled at him. “You know what? Let me recommend you something. If you don’t like it, it’ll be on my head and you don’t have to pay it. If you do like it, you’ll award me with extra tips, deal?”
Blinking in surprise at her friendly face, Ben took her hand and shook it gingerly. His mind was trying in vain to cope with the situation. What was this? In the city a deal like this would not happen. Too many people ready to exploit it in any kind of fashion. And here he was treated like… he belonged here. Like a friend, almost.
“Wonderful.” Melanie vanished into the kitchen and left Ben to read through his magazines. Barely fifteen minutes later she reappeared with a plate filled with salad, potato wedges and a medium sized burger. Then she sat down next to Ben and gazed at him expectantly.
Feeling unsure about what to do or say, he raised his eyebrows. “What is it?”
“Well try it of course. I wanna see if I brought something you like. I want to see your reaction so you don’t cheat me out of my well-earned tip later.” Laughing she gesticulated for him to proceed.
Gingerly Ben took the burger and looked at it. From the outside it seemed like any old burger in any kind of restaurant. Well maybe not the cheap fast food ones where you practically got a slab of lard fried in fat. When he took a bite however, he found that it tasted delicious. The sauce, the salad, even the slab of cheese on top of the heavenly meat were mouthwateringly tasty. A small groan of pleasure escaped him as he chewed, thoroughly surprised. “This is good.”
“Ha, I knew it!” Clapping her hands together and punching her first in the air Melanie was the picture of joy. “I am awesome!”
“You are”, Ben mumbled around his mouthful of food.
“Say, I could not help but observing what you did with the magazine earlier.” Melanie reached over and snatched the battered magazine out of the small pile of newspapers and started sifting through it.
Feeling his throat tighten, Ben had a hard time swallowing his food. His eyes darted around the restaurant but the booth that granted him privacy also blocked his view of the rest of the room. “That is private”, he hissed and furrowed his brow.
“Hey, we are alone here. There is absolutely no one else. Don’t worry.”
The fact that she had observed him not only dealing with the magazine but also noticed his wandering gaze angered him. But it was an anger that was fueled by fear. Which made it in many cases more dangerous than any other kind of anger that a man can feel. For fear-based anger was the kind of power that made a man mutilate his children’s sex organs to keep them pure. It made them run amok beat up people and do even more horrible things. The only other form of anger that was more intense, more dangerous was anger based on religious fear. Slightly different but also vastly dangerous.
Sensing the rage like a deer the kindling flames, she reached out and placed her hand on top of his. “Sorry I didn’t want to intrude. It’s just that I noticed this sort of behavior before. My bother does it too.”
“So?” Anger was still pulsing through his system.
“Yes. He always buys all these men’s magazines and visits clubs just to keep up the appearance.”
His fingernails dug into the palm of his hand, causing small red half moons to appear there. “He does”, Ben mumbled.
“Yes. He is… in the entertainment… uh.. sector. And because of that everybody expects him to pull women in by the dozen. He always goes through these magazines, letting them lie around everywhere but in the end, he is not interested in them at all.”
His breathing elevated, Ben barely knew what to say. What was this woman up to? “So what is he interested in?”
“His school sweetheart. They all expect him to be some sort of womanizer and if he doesn’t play the part he gets into serious trouble. For some reason it seems to come with certain jobs that you are expected to have all sorts of loose women around. And if you are instead only interested in the person you have been married to for twenty years, people seem to think you are boring.”
So that was what she was after! She thought that he was married and covering it up with magazines just like her brother. Feeling dizzy from keeping his breath for so long, Ben exhaled in relief. “I see. Yes, it is similar with me”, he agreed. She didn’t think he was gay. Just a married man trying to appear to be still available and play the part. Suddenly feeling drunk with relief, Ben noticed for the first time that his burger was in smithereens. “I have to play the part too because it is expected in my job. If I don’t drink and be merry with the rest of them, I am locked out of business deals. Sounds just as superficial as it is. But that’s the deal for you in my branch of work.”
“I know what you mean.” Melanie patted him gently on the shoulder and snatched a potato wedge from his plate. “Try these, they are with salt and rosemary. Very delicious.”
Now suddenly able to enjoy his meal again, Ben tried a wedge and found that she was right.
“Our society is strange, you know?” Melanie stared thoughtfully at the piece of wedge she had bitten off from. “If you do not meet certain appearances, you are simply kicked out. No matter how good you are at your job.”
Ben nodded and continued eating. She was all too right on this part.
“So what is it with you? Are you married too or do you just have someone special in your life?”
Thinking of Tom, Ben allowed himself a smile. “I guess it is the latter. It is still rather fresh but I have high hopes for it.”
“Well I am happy for you.”
Suddenly Melanie did not seem intrusive anymore. Just observant and caring. Maybe a bit lonely and searching for someone to talk to. Just like he had been. They spend the rest of his meal talking and Ben found that she was a rather enjoyable conversational partner. It was easy to talk to her and he found himself relax more and more. When he found that it was time to go he slipped her an extra ten pound bill as a tip. For being nice to talk to, for the good choice of food, but mostly because he was relieved that it had been a misunderstanding.
In turn, she slipped him a business card. Frowning Ben took it and turned it from one side to another. “What’s this? The Silver Dime Bar?”
“Yes. I thought it might be for you. My brother met his husband there a few years ago.”
Stunned, Ben looked up. “Your brother is… gay?”
“Yes. Didn’t I mention?”
Special Thanks to:
Mayfryn who made the first pledge on 27. April 2018
Brandon who made the first pledge on 30. April 2018